DEAR HUNS, SORRY ABOUT ATTILA

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"Dear Huns,

"Sorry about Attila.

"Sincerely,

"Charlemagne."

That's all Bill Clinton had to do the other day when Kim Il Sung passed on to that great rice paddy in the eastern sky. But we know Bubba can't ever shut up and so he went on for a few sentences of condolence, inspiring a protest of insensitivity from Bob Dole, the Senate's "Terrible Tempered Mr. Bangs."

Which is partisan nonsense and Sen. Dole knows it.

All presidents have to, from time to time, utter pious rubbish. It's an honored tradition to blather on at ceremonial occasions such as the death of another head of state with whom we are not actually at war. Or to talk cheerful rot at summit meetings and gatherings of the G-7 and so on. Does anyone think Mr. Clinton is really all that excited about having to meet Mitterrand on the tarmac somewhere yet again? Is it all that jolly having the emperor of Japan there in the Rose Garden? How many laughs can you get out of Chancellor Kohl?

Dole knows all this and when, or if, he's president he'll be issuing his own oratorical ruffles and flourishes.

I thought the most astounding item of intelligence to come out of the sudden death of the world's longest-reigning tyrant derived from neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Dole but the widely reported story that, despite its economic and other isolation, North Korea does a brisk import business in two commodities, both destined personally for Kim's son, "The Dear Leader," or "the Beloved Leader," Kim Jong Il, who is said to be an enormous consumer "of Scotch whisky and Swedish women."

He is also said to be unstable, a cutthroat, and quite possibly mad.

They called off the Korean War 41 years ago this month. But it never really ended. So this week up there at Pjongyang they were finally going to meet, Kim of the North and Kim of the South, to decide whether to start up the war again or, just maybe, begin building a tomorrow. After all those years, and all those dead, they were finally getting down to talking about it.

And then Kim died, the thoughtless sumbitch!

Since he (the old man) was also a wacko and Kim of the South something of a cipher and since the Clinton administration's foreign policy is something they make up between joggings, no one was laying serious money on much coming out of Pjongyang but smoke.

That doesn't mean it didn't matter, what was supposed to be going on up there this week. To a generation of middle-aged Yanks you never saw on M*A*S*H, Korea matters. Has done so for a long time. It's a ragtag peninsula no bigger than a decent Midwest state and it's ten thousand miles away. But we left youth there, a lot of friends, too.

And now Secretary of State Christopher is in Hanoi palavering with Charlie. We're great pals with the Germans and Italians and the Japanese half a century after the Big War and now we're getting chummy with the North Vietnamese.

It's the way of the world. We go over there, we fight, we lose guys, usually we win, and then we vote them some foreign aid. If Kim of the North weren't nuts he would have cut a deal with us years ago. Maybe he wanted to cut a deal this week. We'll never know. Hitler's dead and Mussolini and we hanged Tojo and now at last gone too is Kim of the North.

Leaving behind his dangerous little country with its good army to the care and feeding of Sonny Boy. When he isn't at the Scotch and the Swedes, that is.

No one knows how many people died in Daddy's war, Kim Il Sung's. Of the Americans, we had 54,246 dead, 103,284 wounded, 8,177 MIA. Nearly 400,000 South Koreans died, military and civilians. Communist China never did say how many of their men died. On our side, a million casualties in all. On Kim Il Sung's side, maybe more.

His was one of the last outlaw regimes. And I was hoping this week when the two Kims got together and our anchormen were there in their safari jackets, behaving importantly and being brisk and reporting back in hushed words, that we wouldn't be seeing a lot of touchy-feely TV guff about "this grand and gallant old man."

Remember, we'd negotiated with Kim Il Sung before. A year after he started the war, back on July 10 of 1951, Kim began talking peace. And men were still dying two years later. Even after the truce, American officers were murdered, hacked to death in the neutral zone of Panmunjom. Our ship, Pueblo, was captured. Airliners were shot down. South Korean cabinet members blown away. And Kim was said to be thinking of selling nukes to Iran, to Iraq, to Gadhafi, to anyone with enough money and sufficient hate.

Is Junior a chip off the old monster? I guess we'll find out pretty soon. They say after a decent period of mourning they'll reschedule the summit with Kim of the South. They also say that if the North Koreans decide to fight again, they won't have the Russkis backing them or the Chinese sending in their army the way they did in 1950.

And that'll be fine with guys like me who were 18 years old then or 20 or 23, and we fought Kim of the North and we destroyed his army and then we stopped the Chinese, 45 of their divisions against six or seven of ours, and a lot of us died and the Marines who fought at the Chosin nearly didn't make it, and some are still petitioning Washington for a few dollars and doctoring for frozen feet that ache and ooze to this day.

Let the Kims meet. Fine with me. Let them and the observers and the press in their correspondent costumes have the guided tour of the DMZ and thrill to the sight of the barbed wire through telescopes at the ridgelines, damn them! where we fought. I'll catch it on the evening news.

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